Newsletter 54 (Spring '09)

Secularism:

a flourishing world order?

J. Andrew Kirk

 

Charles Taylor, in his massive examination of secular belief, has come close to offering a conclusive interpretation of the phenomenon.1 And yet, some of his analysis and conclusions will be disputed, and so the debate will go on. This present review is a modest contribution to the discussion.

Other commentators have tried to elucidate the reality of secularisation, among them Peter Berger,2 Alan Gilbert,3 David Lyon,4 David Martin,5 Seyyed Hossein Nasr6 and Colin Gunton.7 For whatever reason, Taylor does not engage much with other explanations, but sets out his own views. He states that he wishes to present a more convincing, alternative account of the rise of modern secularity than the current ‘subtraction theory’. By this he means the dismissal of God from the public sphere and the loss of religious belief and practice among the populations of Western Europe. His concern is to trace how society has changed from one in which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to one where faith (in some kind of transcendent reality) is only one possibility among others.

As causes, he discusses the processes of disenchantment, the drive to reform, the rage for order, the move from theism through deism to naturalism, the accentuated trust in reason and changed attitudes to time. These are not novel theses, though Taylor contributes fresh and unfamiliar insights into the historical progression. He believes, for example, that the Protestant Reformation was pivotal in ending the prevailing world-view of pre-modern societies. Amongst other factors, he mentions its break with all forms of magic, its rejection of hierarchical power, its move from church-controlled to unmediated personal salvation, a rejection of the distinction between sacred and secular spheres and the call for ordinary people to live a high moral life:

“Reform demanded that everyone be a real, 100 percent Christian. Reform not only disenchants, but disciplines and reorders life and society (774).

 

The 'rage for order'

In turn, the Reform movement inculcated a ‘rage for order’. The drive for higher moral standards throughout the populace meant that “the nascent state becomes more and more an engineer of morals and social practice” (114). This is the beginning of the notion of civility, the way that all citizens should behave in a civilised society. “The advance of civilization brings with it…more stringent standards which place a…heavier interdict on violent behaviour” (659).   Society is to be civilised through disciplines, modes of organisation and, above all, the rule of law. Only in this way can society flourish.

In time, the notion of human flourishing came to dominate the social agenda. In former times, the chief end of human life may have been defined as ‘glorifying God and enjoying him for ever’; latterly the will of God was narrowed to a notion of thriving human welfare. This led, round about the turn of the 17th/18th centuries, to a striking anthropocentric shift:

“(It) comes with the eclipse of this sense of further purpose; and hence the idea that we owe God anything further than the realization of his plan. Which means fundamentally that we owe him essentially the achievement of our own good” (222).

 

From theism to deism

This shift was accompanied by a move from Theism to ‘Providential Deism’. This led inexorably to the primacy of impersonal order. God essentially became the designer of a moral order, whose unchanged laws had to be observed, if human beings wish to prosper (221). These laws can be discovered through observation of human life. Thus was born the tradition of natural law: what rational human beings can discover for themselves about life as sociable beings (129). There is no need for a supernatural revelation to know the rules. Natural law is available to all, offers a basis for rational agreement, and replaces the conflict of interpretations over revealed law. “As the harmony of interests is written into human nature from the start, sympathy and a community of interests should have been enough to establish a non-conflictual order of things” (130), so concern about inherent sin and the need for salvation were no longer seen as important. “The move to Deism reflects a major shift in our background understanding of the human epistemic predicament” (293). Now “(human) agents acquire knowledge by exploring impersonal orders with the aid of disengaged reason” (294). Thus, naturalism was born as a “massive shift in horizon… the rise of modernity.” The application of reason to the given moral nature of the universe was seen as a sufficient tool for working out the chief end of humanity: to increase and perfect human welfare. Through critical debate, in an open public space, agreed rational views about the best political action for government can be achieved (185-191). However, the vision of a “natural universe, seen as basically benign and ordered” (295), the legacy of Providential Deism, was profoundly disturbed by Darwin’s findings that nature is “red in tooth and claw”.

The removal of God from human history resulted in a transformation of the notion of time. Time has become uniform and ordinary. Human beings no longer live close to eternity, because for most there is no eternity. Secular time is all we have. Time, therefore, becomes a precious resource, which must not be wasted, but rather measured and controlled in order to get things done with optimum efficiency. “This time frame deserves, perhaps more than any other facet of modernity, Weber’s famous description of an iron cage” (59). There is no access to any reality outside of this profane time (716).

These are the main reasons why ‘exclusive secular humanism’ has taken such a tight grip on the belief system of contemporary Western societies.  However, one should not imagine that the exaltation of human reason, as a sufficient instrument for understanding human life, is the only mechanism that has shaped society in recent centuries. Taylor gives plenty of space to tracing the influence of the Romantic Movement, and its more recent offshoots, as a ‘counter-enlightenment.’

Romanticism was born in dissatisfaction. The intensification of reason and the procedures of science have tended to exclude human emotional experiences and the world of art, which often express realities in ways that transcend normal reasoning. Secular naturalism has no handle on the experience of beauty. The aesthetic world is a foreign experience. Creativity has been restricted to the world of the scientifically experimental. The rational world by itself lacks depth and wholeness. Moreover, the rage for modern moral order represses feeling, individuality and authenticity. In due course, the romantic sensibility has led to expressive individualism, a rejection of deferred gratification in sexual matters, the pursuit of happiness in the name of self-fulfilment and, in some cases, a return to paganism as a way of undoing disenchantment and satisfying a nostalgia for older rituals.

 

Irreparable loss

Taylor’s object is not merely descriptive and analytic. He wishes to engage as a (Catholic) Christian with the secular phenomenon. He does this by suggesting that secularisation has brought with it an irreparable loss. Built within human experience is an innate desire to transcend present circumstances, find ultimate meaning to existence, discover goals, beyond daily routine, worth living for and escape from “imprisonment in the banal” (719). A secular age cannot meet this yearning for ‘fullness’ or the satisfaction of a fulfilled life. Human beings who believe that they live in a closed, impersonal, materialist universe sense that something fundamental is missing. This has led in many cases to the contemporary search for ‘spirituality.’ Taylor calls this a natural human aspiration to religion (though clearly not the conventional kind). Nevertheless, he believes that this search for a deeper reality than is provided by humdrum existence is still firmly located within the imminent processes of the natural world.

Taylor sums up the principal objective of the whole book as “an attempt to study the fate in the modern West of religious faith in the strong sense. This strong sense I define by a double criterion: the belief in transcendent reality and the connected aspiration to a transformation which goes beyond human flourishing” (510). In other words, his study is as much about the destiny of the Christian faith after modernity as it is about manifestations of the secular.

The book is like a slow moving river that meanders slowly and ponderously towards its destination. It is both fascinating in terms of the subject-matter covered and frustrating due to unnecessary repetition and the difficulty of trying to follow the main storyline. Nevertheless, I believe he largely achieves his goals and in the process illuminates huge swathes of modern Europe’s cultural history. In spite of Taylor’s reservations, I have come to believe that the notion of human flourishing is a useful point of contact between the Christian faith and secular belief. It is just that Christians will insist that humans cannot flourish, whilst living in an iron cage. Here is the sombre conclusion of this magnum opus:

    “A race of humans has arisen which has managed to experience its world entirely as imminent. In some respects we may judge this achievement as a victory for darkness, but it is a remarkable achievement nevertheless” (376).

Notes

1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age ( Cambridge , MA : Harvard University Press, 2007).

2. The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1990).

3. The Making of Post-Christian Britain : A history of the secularization of modern society (London: Longman, 1980)

4. The Steeple’s Shadow: On the Myths and Realities of Secularization (London: SPCK, 1985)

5. A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford: Blackwell, 1978); On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory ( Aldershot : Ashgate Publishing, 2005)

6. Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford: OUP, 1996)

7. The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge: CUP, 1993)

 

On 'The Clash of Civilizations'

David Kettle

Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), died on 24 December 2008. A flush of articles has followed, appraising the work of this senior academic and political advisor; he has long been influential in the United States (his first book was published in 1957). Among them is a testimonial by his past pupil, Francis Fukayama.1

Fukayama recounts that in books written during the decades before The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington challenged the assumption, common among social theorists in the 1950's and 1960's, that the elements associated with Western modernization - economic development, democracy, social mobility, education, rationality and secularization - converged in broad social progress. Rather, he argued, these elements could clash with each other, and must be managed by the establishment of a (perhaps authoritarian) political order; without this, modernization could bring social and political disorder rather than advance.

Huntington added to these insights in The Third Wave (1991), published after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Fukayama writes 'Sam noted that the vast bulk of Third Wave transitions had occurred in culturally Christian countries, and that there was a distinct religious underpinning to the pattern of democratization in the late 20th century.' The United States itself 'did not represent the vanguard of a universalizing democratic movement; rather, it was successful due to its origins as an "Anglo-Protestant" society.'

More recently, Huntington argued in Who Are We? (2004) that the United States' Anglo-Protestant culture  - and bound up with this, the nation's identity - is threatened by an internal clash both with the 'cosmopolitan and transnational commitments' of elites on the one hand, and with immigrant groups who are showing a new reluctance to assimilate on the other.2

Fukayama himself, as is well known, paints a rather different picture to Huntington in The End of History (1992). In his recent testimonial he rejects again the latter's 'gloomy picture.. of a world riven by cultural conflict', writing:  'Sam, in my view, underrated the universalism of the appeal of living in modern, free societies with accountable governments.' Also, while Fukayama accepts that democracy is historically connected with Christian cultural values in its origins, he does not agree with Huntington that it is sustained by these in any fundamental way.

 

A Wake-Up Call

Huntington's writings serve to warn us against the danger of (1) ascribing to freedom, a supreme and self-evident value appreciated by ourselves as Westerners, and (2) assuming that non-Westerners recognise (or will come naturally to recognise if unhindered) this supreme prize and our Western regard for it. There is a further danger, however: the freedom prized by Western, secular liberal thinkers can be a distorted version of freedom, leading them to a false exaltation of  'the West' as well as false expectations of 'the rest'. 

Christian discernment is required in judging where such falsehood is to be found. Take for example, Philip Jenkins' book God's Continent: Christianity, Islam and Europe's Religious Crisis,  reviewed by Colin Chapman in Network newsletter No. 52. Jenkins writes of Muslims that 'In the longer term, the underlying pressures making for accommodation and tolerance will prove hard to resist'. Richard Neuhaus, however, is critical of Jenkins3 (ACCESS 662).He finds Jenkins' prognosis 'somewhat sanguine', drawing attention to those who speak rather of preparing for a 'soft Islamization' of Europe. He writes  'The prospect is that, in the not-so-distant future, someone will publish a book entitled Allah's Continent. In fact, several Muslim authors have already published books with very similar titles, anticipating the future of the Europe that was… I very much wish Philip Jenkins' God's Continent provided better reasons for believing they are wrong'.

Now which of these is right? Where does discernment lie? To be sure, a false optimism based on liberal assumptions is irresponsible and dangerous; but no less so is a false pessimism.

 

Freedom - Christian, and Western

Discernment is required here especially regarding the Western exaltation of freedom: is this true freedom as found in Christ, or is it a distortion and travesty of this? No doubt the Western celebration of freedom is historically indebted to Protestant Christianity. But this does not prove that true freedom is represented by freedom as the West understands it and exults it today, or that when cultures clash with the West, it is this true freedom with which they clash.

To be sure, we must take seriously that cultures uninformed by a Christian imagination may not easily acclaim and embrace freedom in Christ. But we must also take seriously that Western culture has itself lost much of its nourishment by the Christian imagination, so that the freedom it prizes has become a travesty of freedom in Christ. In this case, for other cultures to clash with the West is by no means for them to clash with the freedom promised by Christ.

And indeed people from non-Western cultures (Christians included) not uncommonly protest that the Western vision of freedom is unworthy (for Christians among them, unworthy of the name of Christ). For them, the Western vision is too wedded to a post-Enlightenment definition of humanity and its concept of autonomously choosing, rational, rights-bearing individuals. To them, the West can appear on the one hand quite ready to pursue its own interests with disregard for the freedom of other cultures, and on the other hand quite ready to endorse morally decadent choices at home. Therefore when the West promotes itself to people of other cultures as the way of freedom and enlightenment, their response may be deeply ambivalent. Even should they resist the West despite its hugely impressive achievements, they may borrow from the West's self-understanding in doing so. Vinoth Ramachandra writes, 'To see the conflicts of the present world as a clash of Western rationalist ideals and oriental religious zeal is profoundly misleading. If European powers justified their imperial conquests with claims of progress and enlightenment, Asian rulers translated those same ethnocentric claims into brutal nationalist projects', He illustrates this from the modern history of Russia, China, Cambodia, Indonesia and Japan.

How vital today is the task of cultural self-awareness in the West; and how vital the responsibility of Christians, helped by the international family of Christ, to rise to cultural discernment in the light of Christ.

Notes

1.      Francis Fukayama, 'Samuel Huntington', http://www.the-american-interest.com/contd/?p=688

2.      Obituary, Times OnLine: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/obituaries/article5408079.ece

3.      Richard Neuhaus, 'The Much Exaggerated Death of Europe', First Things, May 2007.

4.      Vinoth Ramachandra, Subverting Global Myths, SPCK, 2008, p.67.

 

 

Economic policy: one crisis and another

The current economic crisis is causing much concern. Could it have been avoided? Certainly some have warned that the recent and continuing global economic system has an inherent instability and potential for crisis. Others have warned rather that while this system continues it is causing a crisis of huge proportions.

Michael Northcott's article in Third Way illustrates the latter (ACCESS No. 663). In October 2007 the author wrote: 'The world is faced with a biopolitical crisis… At the heart of the present crisis is not a conventional empire but the global market empire fashioned in the last 50 years as governments have deregulated money and trade, and freed up economic actors and financial markets to enable maximal wealth accumulation by banks and corporations without regard to political sovereignty or territorial limits. This has involved an expansion in monetary values in the form of bank credits, paper money, stocks, and financial instruments such as derivatives, future, and hedge funds, or unprecedented proportions.' Whereas those who direct the project of economic globalisation promise redemption from suffering, he says, 'in reality this vast collective project of global wealth accumulation disempowers people in communities of place, and so provokes enormous destruction in the welfare of ecosystems and of human communities… (it also) presages the greatest ecological collapse in the history of the human species'.

The challenge is to build a global economic system which will neither itself collapse, nor by its persistence sponsor a collapse of this appalling kind.

 

Words from the past

'Trade has been put in the place of truth… (but) nothing can be built… on the unphilosophical philosophy of blind buying and selling; of bullying people into purchasing what they do not want; of making it badly so that they may break it and imagine they want it again; of keeping rubbish in rapid circulation like a dust-storm in a desert; and pretending that you are teaching men to hope, because you do not leave them one intelligent instant in which to despair.'

(G. K. Chesterton, 1935)

 

 

Citizenship and civility

Speaking to religious leaders in Birmingham, Rowan Williams remarked upon the heritage of civic feeling and civic pride from the nineteenth and early twentieth-century (ACCESS No. 670). It had translated into the provision of learning, art, music, and sport by means of libraries, galleries, concert halls etc. Importantly it reminds us, he said, that those who thought about cities in those terms were thinking about citizens in a 'three-dimensional' way: 'in other words, they were looking at citizens not as voters or interest groups, they were looking at citizens as people who needed for their life in the community all sorts of spaces that weren't just functional or problem-solving, but spoke of something deep and something more than just political in the narrow sense.'

The archbishop went on to acknowledge that 'the whole notion of investing in public space that had dignity and excitement about it took a bit of a dip in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and it's taken some time to "push it back in" again.'

Crucial to the notion of 'three-dimensional citizenship', he said, is faith: 'people who live in a city are people you may expect to have relationships and commitments that have to do with religious conviction.' Where a society is made up of people of many religions, this calls for a vision of 'argumentative democracy' which brings religion into the public sphere as part of three-dimensional citizenship. He called on national government to acknowledge where religious communities are contributing to the fulfilment of three-dimensional citizenship and 'work with the grain'.

Across in the United States, meanwhile, what place will President Obama grant to religion in public life? Evidence of some of his thinking is offered by Madeleine Bunting (Guardian, 12 January): 'Recently, liberal secular allies have been shocked by his decision not to dismantle, but to take over and expand, Bush’s controversial flagship policy of funding faith-based organisations to provide social services…. The point is that Obama has not wavered in his passionate faith in the progressive potential of religious belief since he first encountered it in south Chicago in community organising. He was in his 20s, and for three years he was trained in a politics based on a set of principles developed by a Jewish criminologist and an ex-Jesuit with borrowings from German Protestant theologians.' (note: on faith-based initiatives in the U.S. and the U.K., see ACCESS nos. 658 and 665).

In the view of Os Guinness, the disputed place of religion in U.S. public life is the key issue confronting President Obama (USA Today, http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/2009/01/faith-and-inaug.html). Echoing his recent book The Case for Civility (HarperCollins, 2008) he calls for 'the restoration of a civil and cosmopolitan public square. This includes an understanding of public life in which citizens of all faiths - and none - are free to enter and engage public life on the basis of their faith, but within  a framework of what is agreed to be just and free for people of all other faiths, too… a framework in which differences are taken seriously, conflicts debated robustly and policy decided civilly'.

Behind the pursuit of citizenship and civility lies a certain vision of public space and of the public. The Christian vision, for its part, is neither of a 'naked' public square nor of a 'sacred' public square; it starts further back than this dichotomy, in a biblical understanding of secular and sacred, creation and creator: the 'secular' is the realm of things created and provisional, which find sacred meaning and purpose as signs pointing to God who created, redeems, and will fulfil them in new creation. This calls for a public square open to the question of God's good purposes, and open to those who make religious claims for what these purposes might be. Christian faith makes claims not only for faith, but for public space and for a public comprised of 'three-dimensional citizens'.

DK

 

 

Network News

Thank you to those readers who suggested possible explanations why we had to cancel our last conference Mission - in Christian Soil? None denied the importance of the theme. Perhaps the Network should probe further this theme at some point in the future.

Network Conference

Meanwhile we shall shortly hold the last of our conferences on three aspects of the cultural context of mission in the West: paganism, Christian soil, and secularist ideology. Having reflected with Tom Wright on Christian Witness in a Pagan Culture, and having postponed attention to Mission in Christian Soil, we now gather to consider Responding to Secularism: Christian Witness in a Dogmatic Public Culture. We shall be led in this by John Stackhouse, Elaine Storkey, Andrew Kirk and Dominic Erdozain at Tyndale Hall, Cambridge on Friday 24th April. A flyer is enclosed for British and European readers, but those further afield are most welcome to come too!

            Please note that places are very limited (50 places), and that we will be sharing these with associates of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, whose Director Jonathan Chaplin has played the key role co-ordinating this shared event. So please book as soon as possible, and be sure to book before 1st April.

Newbigin centenary

Later in 2009, events are being planned in association with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to celebrate the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin's birth. The hope is to hold these in Edinburgh (with involvement from the Church of Scotland), Birmingham and London. There may be events held elsewhere too; if you know of any, please let me know, and I will spread news of them. Further information will follow as it becomes available.

DK

 

The first in a new series of feature articles:

 

Mission to Western Culture: Twentieth Century Pioneers

 

G. K. Chesterton

Kevin Morris

 

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was the Christian apostle of wonder and gratitude, a prophet against the toxic world-views of his day.  Having been an agnostic and socialist, he surveyed the new century with horror, and prepared for crusade.  He believed that as the British Empire reached its apogee the age of science and industry, rationalism and materialism was generating a culture of barbarism and inhumanity.  As a formerly Christian society dissolved into a miasma of individualism, pessimism, nihilism and cynical, exploitative capitalism, he also believed, however, that his society could still take the medicine of Christian hope and enthusiasm, meaning and purpose rooted in the doctrine of a loving God.

His whole life as a journalist, poet, novelist, essayist, critic, lecturer, traveller, campaigner and broadcaster was rooted in his attempt to revive society's dying Christian vision of holiness, value and solidarity.  His radical Christian message quickly gained for him a huge national and international audience.  He spoke of complex, troubling things in simple, everyday, playful terms laced with his personal amiability and charm.  Such fresh expression made him stand out in a society still suffering under Victorian self-righteousness and censoriousness.

He was a prolific writer: a hundred books bear his name and he wrote hundreds of articles for many periodicals.  Several of his books focussed on religion including Orthodoxy (1908), The Everlasting Man (1925) and St Thomas Aquinas (1933); while he applied his vision to the world around him and its thinkers in other books such as Heretics (1905), What's Wrong with the World (1910), Eugenics and other Evils (1922), and The Outline of Sanity (1926).

He deplored faith in progress, which he typified as "a false religion", amounting to "the persecution of the common Man".  Because he was anti-modernist, Chesterton is construed as a "conservative"; but such labels ignore his declaration that "I am entirely on the side of the revolutionists", and his warning that "living things must constantly be broken up and destroyed; it is only the dead things that can be left alone".  He certainly believed that Christianity needed fresh expression in order to protect ordinary people from ancient tyrannies using new guises.  He wanted to mend the backbone of Christendom.

Secularism seduced by the apparent rationality of its expressions.  The young, he said, "have heard only the latest jargon of their own generation; the last heresy that has rebelled against the last heresy but one."  Language and thought were being mischievously degraded: "it is a question of liberty from catchwords and headlines and hypnotic repetitions and all the plutocratic platitudes imposed on us by advertisement and journalism."  "Our knowledge," he warned, "is perpetually tricking and misleading us."  The brave new world offered by secularism was an inadequate and destructive deceit: in 1908 he observed that" there is a collapse of the intellect as unmistakeable as a falling house."  People were terrifyingly gullible: "the modern world will accept no dogmas upon any authority; but it will accept any dogmas upon no authority."

Those leading the people down a dead-end of secularist and materialist individualism, pessimism, nihilism and cynicism were the powers of capitalism and statism, the purveyors of scientism, rationalism and new paganisms.  The modern scientific mind, he believed, attacks "the 'corner stone of Christianity' - the sacredness of the ordinary man."  Its atheism actually abolishes "the sense that there is a meaning and a direction in the world."  Its materialism undermines humanity: "I do not mean only kindness, I mean hope, courage, poetry, initiative", because it leads to "complete fatalism".  Its scepticism "removes the motive power".

Chesterton met the age of scepticism with scepticism, the age of ego with the Christian visions of community, fraternity, humility and moral responsibility. 

Society was suffering from individual, social, cultural and political atomization: "this world," he exclaimed, "is all one wild divorce court."  Determinist modernism was undermining morality, mind and will, which held society  together: "it was a Determinist who told me ….that I could not be responsible at all."  "Will made the world," he insisted, and "Will wounded the world."

Such insights informed his political views.  He was an egalitarian, freedom-loving democrat, who opposed himself to both State and Capital.  Britain's was a

"grossly unjust social system"; and he claimed he had always tried " to put a chain and collar of Responsibility … on the Top-dog."  The rich and powerful had reduced the common man to the level of a "wage-slave", and were stripping the poor of their ancient collective Christianity in order to render them solitary and defenceless before the innovations of the elites.  In his periodical, G.K.'s Weekly (1925-1936), he gave voice to the political idea called "Distributism", which sought to redistribute property, especially landed property - to all, so that every individual worker might secure his freedom and consolidate his family with home-ownership.  He was especially concerned that political forces were damaging the family.  His "social gospel" seems to have influenced Christian groups across the English -speaking world.

Generally hostile to imperialism, ho opposed the Boer War, and spoke up for "victim nations" such as Ireland and Poland.  He warned against the ultra-nationalism of Germany, and against racism.  He opposed anything in the way of morality and medical ethics which was detrimental to the family or respect for human life.

Chesterton thought the human soul was dying along with Christianity, and he tried to teach people to be happy, "how to enjoy enjoyment".  He laboured, he said, "so that a man sitting in his chair might suddenly understand that he was actually alive, and be happy."  "The chief idea" of his life was that of "taking things with gratitude, and not taking things for granted."  For this Christian doctrine of humanity was vital: "the only way to enjoy  even a weed is to feel unworthy even of a weed."  He thought the love of life might be restored by resurrecting the sense of purpose, meaning and value.

That Chesterton was essentially right, Christians can now see very clearly.  Early in the last century he declared that "humanity stands at a solemn parting of the ways", because it is "deserting the path of religion and entering upon the path of secularism": "this is the drama of our time."  It is, indeed, the drama of our time.

 

Comment: AN AGE OF SPIRITUALITY

I have within the last few weeks started a new job as the Co-ordinator for Vocations and Spirituality in the Diocese of Salisbury. This has led me to reflect in a fresh way about the meaning of spirituality in our society.  We are living in the days of the credit crunch. All around us there is taking place a major readjustment of thinking about many things which have more or less been taken for granted in recent years. To me at least, it does seem like the end of an era. I think that we are seeing the end of a particular form of free market capitalism, and a significant check on the rampant consumerism which has come to dominate our society.
            Consumerism tells us that we live to shop. The meaning of life is to be found in acquiring and consuming things that claim to satisfy our many appetites. If suddenly we all have to live within our means, and for millions of people those means are very limited, what then is the meaning of life?
            Spirituality is concerned with our encounter with God, and how that encounter is experienced, nourished and expressed. For Christians this is the God who in Christ promises each of us fullness of life, a life of lasting meaning and fulfilment. "The glory of God is a human being fully alive," said St. Irenaeus.
            These are days when Christian communities across the land have an extraordinary new opportunity to show by the way we live what it can mean to be fully alive in Christ.

Ian Cowley

 

Book review

D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, Apollos/IVP, 2008, pp.244, £12.99(pb)

In this book D. A. Carson, the noted evangelical scholar, turns his attention to the questions relating to how Christians should interact with the culture in which they find themselves. The first two chapters focus on the classic study by H. Richard Niebuhr. Here there is a careful examination of the terms “Christ” and “Culture” and the typology Niebuhr suggested for reflection. Carson finds this work seriously wanting and misleading. The problem is, as Carson sees it, that there is no clear Biblical theology grounded in the key turning points of God’s redeeming work, from creation, through the call of Israel, the coming of the promised Christ, his teaching, death and resurrection, the gift of the Spirit and the birth of the church, coming to a completion at the End. All of Niebuhr’s “types” can claim, in varying degrees, some grounding in Scripture, but none of them takes a full-bodied biblical theology position seriously. So the resulting offering is various degrees of reductionism.  

               Then follows a chapter evaluating current debates on culture and postmodernism in which Carson’s skills in analysis are very evident. Chapter 4 reflects on the notions of secularism, democracy, freedom and power, showing how all these terms are ambiguous in differing contexts; for example, one person’s freedom is another person’s oppression. Then comes a chapter examining the relationship of church and state, drawing mainly but not exclusively on American resources. Finally, a chapter surveys some contemporary treatments of Christ and Culture, with attention given to Abraham Kuyper and the recent study by Craig A. Carter which is also judged to be reductionist.

               Undoubtedly there are some important things said in this book but over all it is a disappointment. Some important studies, for example by Charles Scriven and John Howard Yoder are overlooked. Carson’s judgment of others while fair can be too brisk and the reader longs for a deeper engagement. This sense of depth does appear in the way Carson argues that the Christian experience of living in particular cultures varies and, in consequence, the responses are different, a fact not always acknowledged in less wide ranging studies. But it raises the question as to whether Carson himself has been sufficiently self-critically aware of his own American evangelical theology.

Brian Haymes  

This issue's contributors

Ian Cowley is Spirituality and Vocations Adviser in the Diocese of Salisbury

Brian Haymes is a Baptist minister living in Manchester

J. Andrew Kirk is a mission theologian and author

Kevin Morris holds a PhD in English Literature and is author of The Truest Fairy Tale: An Anthology of the Religious Writings of G. K. Chesterton (Lutterworth, 2007)


Newsletter 55 (Summer '09)

Darwin Days

Philip Sampson

The Celebrations

Darwin’s double anniversary year is being celebrated with numerous articles, programmes, a feature film (starring the Da Vinci Code actor, Paul Bettany) and even a set of commemorative stamps. In a supposedly postmodern era of suspicion towards science, this public celebration of a scientific theory is noteworthy.

        Yet a closer look at the content of the celebrations suggests more interest in the story of Darwin the ‘great man’ and cultural revolutionary than in the science. Darwin, it is said, has shown us our true place in the world, giving us a less arrogant account of our relationship with our fellow animals than that provided by religion.

 

The Triumvirate of Modernity

This interest reflects a more general rise in evolutionary stock over recent decades. A previous generation venerated the triumvirate of Marx, Freud and Darwin as the harbingers of the modern spirit - with Darwin very much the poor relation. Darwinism’s child, sociobiology, was associated with naive positivism and, at best, politically conservative values. Darwin himself was scarcely a prophet of twentieth century revolution or sexual liberation: a conventional man of independent means and linked to the establishment Wedgewood dynasty, he was positively uxorious, a believer in the superiority of men and the caucasian races, an advocate of the British Flag and the benefits of Christian civilisation, even a subscriber to missionary societies and the church roof fund.  Marx and Freud were the real modern heroes, with their outsider status, their critiques of bourgeois marriage, morals and reason, arguments congenial to a generation which perceived conventional practices and traditional institutions as repressive and stultifying.

        Yet Marx and Freud have not fared well. Rather it is Darwin who now stars in popular debate as well as in the human sciences. Routinely described as a ‘great man’, a ‘saint of the new secular materialist age’, who wears ‘the crown for the scale of his intellectual revolution’, he had the ‘most important idea in human history’ and his book The Origin of Species ‘revolutionised the world’ with its ‘profound insights’, ‘possibly the most explosive work of science ever written’1.

        A few specialist radio programmes cast doubt on this naive story, but Armand Leroi’s What Darwin Didn’t Know made a positive virtue of its mythic features2. Leroi is aware that the initial interest in The Origin soon declined, to effectively die out by 1900. Until its revival within biology in the 1930s, Darwinism was significant, not as science, but as a popular ideology among colonialists, generals, big game hunters and ‘progressive’ eugenic thinkers such as H G Wells, G B Shaw, Bertrand Russell and J Maynard Keynes. Its subsequent association with Nazism dented its reputation but, as an ideology, it is once again enjoying a revival.

 

The Evolution of Evolution

Against this chequered history, Leroi argues that ‘evolutionary theory has itself evolved’. This is an interesting but not entirely novel proposal. For a ‘science’, Darwinism has always been uncomfortably closely associated with its social context. So, applying the evolutionary principle of ‘survival of the fittest’, what is it about the world-views of some periods that fitted Darwinism to survive and flourish, whereas it died out in others? Karl Marx was among the first to see ‘natural selection’ itself as a case of perceiving in the natural world Darwin’s own English society with its world-view of a ‘division of labour, competition and struggle for existence’. And historians have long noticed that the popularity of Social Darwinism in the early twentieth century was useful to rich white men, especially those with racist or colonialist world-views. Of course, this leaves Darwinism as a cultural phenomenon vulnerable to social changes. Bertrand Russell observed in the 1940s that the ‘survival of the fittest’ was less popular among biologists than it had been, because competitive capitalist world-views were out of fashion3.

        Leroi sets out to trace Darwinism’s ‘decline, fall and ultimate triumph’. Yet, as the phrase ‘ultimate triumph’ suggests, he actually presents not a story of the evolution of Darwinism, but of its ‘progress’. For example, he notes that major figures in Darwinism’s twentieth century rehabilitation were eugenicists and scientific racists, but presents this as an aside rather than a context4.

        Nevertheless, it is worth pursuing the idea that Darwinism, as a resurgent cultural force, is responding to a change in the contemporary world-view. To give an evolutionary account of Darwinism’s selection as a story of our own time, we must show why it is best fitted to survive in today’s world of the early twenty-first century. Why have Darwinism’s  just-so stories once again become fashionable?

 

Search for Unity

Flagship TV programmes on Darwin such as David Attenborough’s The Tree of Life have celebrated Nature with outstanding photography of its sheer variety and complexity. How, Attenborough asked, can we ‘make sense’ of the ‘huge range’ of ‘astounding’, ‘dazzling’, and ‘astonishing’ organisms?  Reading from Genesis, he explained to us that the Bible mistook unity for design, and the Christian doctrine of dominion authorised humanity to ‘exploit the natural world as they wished’. But, he continued with positively biblical inflexions, ‘a man was born who was to explain’ the variety and ‘our place in it’. ‘His name was Charles Darwin.’ Many programmes have similarly emphasised that Darwinism accounts for the alleged illusion of design in Nature, and that it unifies Nature’s extraordinary diversity. Leroi, for example, asserted that only Darwinism provides a ‘rational answer to why living things bear the hallmarks of design’, explaining ‘unity within diversity’.

        The unification of diversity in Nature is a recurrent theme in these programmes. But how might this chime with Darwin’s popularity in today’s cultural context? What is it about the contemporary jungle of world-views which mirrors Darwinism’s evolutionary account, and provides an environment for its survival? Perhaps Darwinism’ s promise to bring unity to the diverse jungle of the natural world also holds the promise of a unifying narrative in the postmodern jungle of world-views.

        Where Marx and Freud thrived in the modernist mid twentieth century with its unifying belief in science and progress, Darwinism has blossomed in the postmodern twenty-first century with its variety and diversity of competing world views. Marx and Freud were congenial to those seeking to break up the modernist monopoly, and they served their purpose well. They showed social institutions such as marriage, law, even reason itself, to be founded on sinking sand, the products of economic circumstances or unconscious forces. And they sank. But the resultant fragmentation - what the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has called ‘postmodern chatter’ - has brought its own problems. The old metanarratives, the big stories of modernity such as science, democracy, capitalism or socialism, have been replaced by local narratives of gender, belief or ethnicity. Some miss the old certainties, and hanker after the unifying narrative of science in a world which now seems in pieces. Enter Darwinism - unifying the jungle of world-views just as it does natural diversity, and bringing comfort to the angst of postmodernity. Once again, the human spirit can engage in the epic struggle of discovery. As Leroi puts it, Darwin ‘gave us a new narrative or at least the promise of one - he told us that the history of life is a tale of epic forces and scales and that it was ours to discover.’ Or Attenborough: ‘We are not apart from the natural world [as the Bible teaches].... We do not have dominion over it’. But there is an irony here.

 

Covert Consequences

In Darwinism, we are, as Attenborough observes, part of the world, ‘subject to its laws and processes’. Darwin, unlike many of his modern disciples, saw the implications of this:

         "But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?5

        These convictions of our mind include reason, truth and justice. As Darwin darkly suspected, neither natural nor cultural survival in the struggle for existence guarantees their trustworthiness or authenticity. Darwin feared he had subverted the very reason he prized and on which he took his stand. Nietzsche embraced this Darwinian conclusion, and has been proclaimed the prophet of the very postmodernity contemporary Darwinians abhor6. Darwinism’s current revival may bring temporary comfort to those who are unsettled by science’s lost authority but, if consistently pursued, it deepens postmodernity’s subversive revaluation of all values.

        If Darwinism fails to bring cultural unity, it also exacts a cultural cost for providing a story of unity in the natural world. Darwinism fits the amazing and beautiful diversity of creation into a single narrative of ‘epic forces’ by making power, suffering and death into generative principles. As Richard Dawkins concedes ‘the Darwinian world is a very nasty place; the weakest go to the wall. There’s no pity, no compassion’. Yet Dawkins values the pity and compassion which he has inherited from his Christian upbringing without being able to rationally justify his preference: ‘I couldn’t, ultimately, argue intellectually against somebody who did something I found obnoxious. I think I could finally only say, “Well, in this society you can’t get away with it” and call the police'7. The ultimate appeal is to the police force, the bearers of social power, not reason. As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century, we must hope that the police retain a firm grip on their Christian heritage.

Notes

1.      Quotations have been drawn from programmes by David Attenborough, Melvyn Bragg and Armand Leroi; also Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, 13.02.09, p37.

2.      BBC4, 26.1.09.

3.      See my Six Modern Myths (2000) pp.60ff.

4.      E.g Fisher and Haldane

5.      From a letter to W. Graham, 3 July 1881.

6.      See A Grafen & Ridley, Richard Dawkins: how a scientist changed the way we think, OUP, 2006.

7.      http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/619 accessed 10.4.09: see the final paragraphs of this neglected interview.

 

Survival, fitness and beyond

David Kettle

Lesslie Newbigin, it is recalled, was once told that 'Keep-Fit' classes had been started in the area where he ministered in Winson Green, Birmingham. 'Fit for what?' he asked.

        As a catchphrase, 'Survival of the fittest' involves the notion of 'fitness'. What does it mean? The ascription of 'fitness' can act simply to 'normalise' - to ascribe normative value, rightness or at least achievement - to what is a de facto state of affairs.

        Rather than 'the survival of the fittest', perhaps we should speak of 'the survival of the best fit': of that which fits best its environment.

        The forms taken by life adapted to fit its environment are indeed a wonder. I marvel at the cactus! Because moisture is scarce, it  is of a shape which provides maximum storage capacity with minimum surface area for evaporation - it is typically spherical or columnar. Because water comes and goes with the seasons, it typically has ribs which enable it, like a concertina, to expand and shrink as a vessel. And because marauding animals are on the search for moisture, it typically protects itself with spines.

        But every such wonder of adaptation presupposes a greater wonder: the living subject without which the question of adaptation does not arise. The emergence in the first place of the radical novelty of life incorporating genes and DNA, and which is the subject of adaptation, is a 'given' for, and thus beyond the reach of, Darwin's theory of natural selection.

 Radical newness

The radically new emerges in:

(1) life in the form of single-celled amoeba which do not die but divide

(2) life comprising a population of individuals which have each been born of sexual union and will die.

(3) human life, comprising persons whose identity is uniquely open. Pannenberg writes: 'One can say that man has a world, while each species of animal is limited to an environment that is fixed by heredity and that is typical of the species.' However, 'this cannot involve only openness to "the world". Rather, openness to the world must mean that man is completely directed into the "open"... beyond the world... beyond every possible picture of the world.... Such openness beyond the world is even the condition for man’s experience of the world....' Such human openness is ultimately towards God.1

        At each new stage, 'survival'/existence and 'fitness' disclose more - relative to the previous stage - of the meaning they have for human beings under God. 'Survival' has a certain minimal meaning applied to a stone. It has more meaning applied to an amoeba, and more again for DNA-based life. 'Life' finds its full meaning for human beings, open towards the gift of eternal life. So too, 'fitness' has new depths of meaning for each. The wonder of adaptation in the natural world, traced painstakingly by Darwin, belongs within this greater framework. It cannot itself provide that comprehensive unitary principle which, as Philip Sampson notes above, is sought from it today. That principle belongs to the deeper wonder of creation and of new creation from the hand of God.

Notes

1.      W. Pannenberg, What is Man? (Philadelphia 1970), p8. Quoted in my 'Michael Polanyi and Human Identity', Tradition & Discovery, United States 1994, Vol XXI, No.3. (ACCESS No.677).

 

Responding to Secularism:

Christian Witness in a Dogmatic Public Culture

Ann Holt

Nurses suspended for praying, codes of conduct forbidding teachers from sharing their faith, housing workers in a church funded organisation suspended for a conversation over coffee… all occurrences in England in the last few weeks. Are these signs of things to come and the result of an increasingly aggressive secularisation process? Or are they a rather confused and clumsy attempt to deal with religious plurality and inclusivism by ruling anything distinctive out? The pressing nature of the questions brought a full house of older and younger together for a very stimulating day at Tyndale House sponsored by KLICE and the Gospel and Our Culture Network.

        Four highly competent presentations from distinguished speakers, two more concerned with how the secular outlook has developed and two with our response to it, provoked lively debate and questions throughout the day. Dominic Erdozain from Kings College, London, a young man going far, gave us a masterly overview of the development of the secular mind in the UK over the last two hundred years (ACCESS 673) while Andrew Kirk almost persuaded me to buy Charles Taylor’s magnum opus, A Secular Age, with his magisterial summary of a seminal, if somewhat laborious work.

         John Stackhouse and Elaine Storkey gave us a clear analysis of the strands within secularism and both were alert to the opportunities within a secular plurality as well as the difficulties it presents. Elaine Storkey had some good stories of what fearless but sensitive witness can open up.

        You can’t do every thing in a day but what I would have liked is a bit more analysis of the impact of “secular pluralism” on social and political policy along with a discussion of the potential secularisation of the Christian Mind which I think I detected in John Stackhouse’s answers and remarks at question time. I just wonder if he is tempted to concede too much by for example wanting to rule out publicly funded distinctively Christian education. Would that not see Christian discipleship and learning relegated to private activities behind closed doors because in his words it is part of the Christian’s particular rather than general calling? Does such an approach reinforce a sacred/secular divide? A Biblically informed set of paradigms for responding to the post Christendom world would move the discussion on. Maybe that is the next conference, to which I eagerly look forward.

   

'The thing which the evolutionary attitude of mind in our day does deny is that there is any particular sanctity about this particular two-legged being who has come from the ape by imperceptible gradations, and who may be going back again to the ape, with equally imperceptual gradations.'

G. K. Chesterton

 

C.S. Lewis

Stephen May

C. S. Lewis well understood the interplay between theology and imagination. He wrote, not academic theology, but stories with an indelibly Christian content and works of popular Christian education. As a result he remains 'still apparently the most widely read religious writer in English’.1

        Lewis believed in ‘Mere Christianity’. He was impatient with denominational differences (making ironic the attempt of various wings of the Church to claim him for their own). He had a sometimes uncomfortable relation with academic theology. He enjoyed doctrine, however; he described reading it as ‘often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books’2 The sense of ontology (being) evidenced in his works is reminiscent of Eastern Orthodoxy.

        Of all Christian doctrines, the one to which Lewis pays most attention, knowingly or not, is that of the Incarnation. Lewis is a superb Christian communicator, and the Incarnation is about God’s making himself known. His stories are full of conceptual content and indeed argument. An example of the latter is the extraordinary anti-reductionist section of the Narnia tale, The Silver Chair, in which the Green Witch in her underground city tries to persuade the children of the unreality of the sun, the overland and the great lion Aslan). Often academic works accompanied stories: The Abolition of Man with That Hideous Strength, A Preface to Paradise Lost with Perelandra (Voyage to Venus).

Reckoning with truth

In his introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, he describes old books as those which will most correct the characteristic errors of our own period, those shared by all contemporary writers, ‘even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it’.3 Lewis deplored what he called ‘chronological snobbery’4, the practice of assuming that because people lived before us their thoughts are now outdated. In his ‘Evolutionary Hymn he parodies the modern belief in progress: ‘Far too long have sages vainly/ Glossed great Nature’s simple text; / He who runs can read it plainly, / “Goodness=what comes next.”’5 His early involvement in science fiction is prophetic. It is motivated at once by love for the genre and hatred of the ideology (particularly of human racism) which he saw propagated in such writers as H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapeldon and Arthur C. Clarke. In The Screwtape Letters (1941) Lewis portrays Hell as creating and manipulating such currents as much as those of human vanity, greed and so forth. For Hooper, Lewis is never wedded to the Spirit of the Age but always engaged in confronting it with the truths of the Gospel.6

        As one would expect, then, Lewis was a relentless opponent of the ‘subjective turn’ in theology. ‘In lecturing to popular audiences I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended Christianity because I thought its affirmations to be objectively true’ rather than ‘comforting, or “inspiring” or socially useful’.7 For his own part he had been brought to faith ‘kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape’8; his experience of God was not of a mere idea but a person both sovereignly objective and dynamically engaged with us in a way that recalls Kierkegaard, Barth and Bonhoeffer. Lewis dismissed the so-called ‘decline of religion’ as a clearing away of ‘a vague Theism’9, which was notable for costing nothing: ‘there was no danger of Its doing anything about us… There was nothing to fear; better still, nothing to obey.’10

First things first

Lewis was an unashamed believer in hierarchy, in finding oneself in relation to an objective external order rather than in self-creation and absolute self-determination (those gods of our modern world…). ‘You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.’11 For Lewis this law was universal: one only got friends, for example, by caring for something else more than friendship. This was the associated ‘law of inattention’, and is perhaps not dissimilar to Polanyi’s tacit knowledge.

        Above all what is first is God, in relation to Whom we all find our place. As for Lewis’ friends, J. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, the primal sin is putting ourselves at the centre of the universe, rather than worshipping the Creator of all. People are not merely misinformed, but sinners, ‘bent’ in their wills and needing salvation. This progressively destroys their ability to see clearly either themselves or anyone else - see the picture of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, and of the tempting devils themselves in Screwtape. The consequences of disobedience are not arbitrary acts of punishment, but inherent to being itself. In the last of the Narnia stories, The Last Battle, the dwarves are unable even to see heaven all around them. The Christ-figure Aslan says of them that, ‘their prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison.’12 Sin, for Lewis, is ontological (and epistemological) suicide.13 It is perhaps his ontological depiction of sin which is the most striking .

        Lewis always said his knowledge of evil was largely drawn from his own heart. Similarly, in figures such as the self-deceiving yet still deeply sympathetic Orual of Till We Have Faces we recognise our own faces. Lewis’ work is a valuable spiritual guide due to this honesty and painful self-knowledge (as, for example, in his A Grief Observed, his memoir of bereavement).

        As Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University, he gleefully described himself as a dinosaur.14 Whilst he prophetically confronted scientism, he did so rejoicing in the Medieval ‘discarded image’. Having come himself to faith through a belief that Christianity was a myth come true, he liked to introduce into his works mythological elements from the Graeco-Roman and Norse worlds that he loved so much. Unsurprisingly, he had no patience for Bultmannian demythologising. He spoke (and wrote) disparagingly of those Biblical critics who ‘claim to see fern-seed and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.’15 ‘The “assured results of modern scholarship”’, he opined, ‘are “assured”… only because the men who knew the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff.’16 

Abolition of the man

The fashion today is to emphasise the mythopoetic skill of his stories, and to deplore his rational (and sometimes rationalist) nonfictional works of Christian theology.  Austin Farrer, the eulogist at his funeral, regretted the tendency to split his work in this way, pointing out that ‘this feeling intellect, this intellectual imagination… made the strength of his religious writings… There lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader at home. Moral issues were presented with sharp lucidity and related to the divine will and, once so seen, could never again be seen otherwise. We who believe will ask no more. Belief is natural, for the world is so. It is enough to let it be seen so.’17

        In his stories and other works, Lewis presented a case for Christianity in the face of much criticism. He was a ‘bonny fighter’ for the cause: he endlessly communicated by talks, sermons, radio as well as writing, and was willing to take on any opponent in a way since unparallelled. In his literary criticism, he showed appreciation of the sort he called for in his warm-hearted An Experiment in Criticism. Though undoubtedly with weaknesses and personal prejudices, he had great personal generosity, kindness and humility. The film Shadowlands has done him a disservice in portraying him as buttoned-up and reserved: Lewis was outgoing, the life and soul of the party who could overwhelm mild-mannered students with his personality, but whose teaching was red meat to many. Enriched himself by the wealth of Christian tradition, he continues now to do the same for us.

Notes

1.      A Century of Protestant Theology (London: Lutterworth, 1980), p.130.

2.      Saint Athanasius: On the Incarnation, translated by a Religious of C.S.M.V. (London: Mowbray, 1970, orig. 1944), p.8.

3.      Saint Athanasius: On the Incarnation, pp.4-5.

4.      Surprised by Joy, pp.166, 167.

5.      Poems, ed. W. Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles), p.55.

6.      First and Second Things, ed. W. Hooper (London: Fount, 1985), p.12.

7.      ‘Modern Man and his Categories of Thought’, in Present Concerns, ed. W. Hooper (London: Fount, 1986), p.65.

8.      Surprised by Joy, p.183.

9.      ‘The Decline of Religion’, in First and Second Things, p.72.

10.    Surprised by Joy, pp.168-9.

11.    First and Second Things, p.22.

12.    The Last Battle (Harmondsworth; Penguin, 1969;orig. 1956), pp.134-5

13.    Compare Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall.

14.    In ‘De Descriptione Temporum’, from They Asked for a Paper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1962), pp.24-5.

15.    ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’, in Fern-seed and Elephants, ed. W. Hooper (London: Fountain, 1977), p.111.

16.    ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’, p.117.

17.    Austin Farrer, ‘In his image’, in C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences, ed. James T. Como (London: Collins, 1980), p. 243.

 

Book Reviews

Philip A. Rolnick, Person, Grace, and God, Eerdmans 2007, 256pp., £18.99

This is an ambitious book, which seeks to set out the history of the emergence of the concept of personhood, and to re-express a contemporary account of the human person as created by God.  There is considerable intellectual energy, and a wide scope, which is both the book’s strength and its weakness.

             The opening chapter, which considers the classical Christian understanding of personhood, is arguably the weakest in the book.  The thrust is basically Western and Augustinian, with the origin of personhood grounded in the inter-personal relations within the Trinity. The danger with this approach is that a rather abstract concept of the person can lurk, and that the inner nature of God is seen more as a God-like essence or substance which is nevertheless personal, indeed tri-personal.   Over time this arguably evolved into the medieval priority given to the unity of God over his triunity, with Augustine’s mental images of God predominant.  Rolnick is aware of Zizioulas’ rather different account, with the person of the Father seen as key to the understanding of God and creation alike, but he doesn’t know quite what to make of it.  He thinks that Zizioulas’ Cappadocian approach calls into question the equality of the persons of the Trinity.  The danger is that Rolnick is left with an underlying tendency to a rather impersonal concept of God, for all his protestations to the contrary.

             A short chapter considers the impact of evolution and Darwin, particularly in relation to the problem of altruism, which Rolnick sees as a mark of divine grace upon the underlying natural substratum of human personhood.  There is also a helpful account of how the unity of human personhood transcends the purely physical, naturalistic aspects of life. 

             A substantial chapter on postmodernism provides a helpful overview of such thinkers as Nietzsche and Derrida.  Rolnick sees the problem with postmodernism in its deepening of Descartes’ turn to the subject, and its consequent tendency towards non-realism and even nihilism.  The finite must necessarily be on its own.

             The final chapters attempt a restatement of the classic Christian view of life, and human personhood, as a gift from God.  There is much here which is stimulating and (to this reviewer) true.  Yet it retains a certain abstract, almost idealistic feel.  As an indication and illustration of this, there is little discussion of gender and sexuality.  One could read this book almost without realising that humankind takes the form of male and female.  Arguably, this is a consequence of his rather flat, co-equal understanding of the Trinity, with humankind made in the divine image.

             These reservations aside, this is an impressive and stimulating book, with many fascinating observations about human personhood.

Peter Forster

 

Jason E. Vickers: Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology, Eerdmans, 2008, 224pp., £15.99 (pb)

This is a provocative book. Vickers asks whether the doctrine of the Trinity has become separated from daily life. He contrasts two approaches to faith: faith as assent to propositional truth based on Scripture (eg doctrine of the Trinity), and faith as the response to God’s saving work, eg in the invocation of the Trinity in worship.

             Vickers’ particular concern is focused on the way in which the ‘rule of faith’ changes in English Christianity. To appreciated what this means we need to understand what Vickers understands by the rule of faith: ‘Within the framework of catechism, baptism, and the liturgy of the early church, the rule of faith was second only in importance to the divine name itself.’ (p.4) Thus the ‘rule of faith’ provides a summary of God’s identity as Trinity:

Most importantly, the rule of faith made clear that the triune God was a God favourably disposed towards humans, a God who desired ongoing communion with all of creation, a God who was willing to go to any length necessary to obtain and to sustain it. In short, it identified the saving activities of the triune God.’ (p.4)

A particular stream within English Protestant theology has re-interpreted this classic ‘rule of faith’ by prioritising sola Scriptura, and thereby distorted (and still distorts) our current understanding of God and salvation, particularly our understanding of God as Trinity:

… the working out of a distinctively English Protestant version of sola Scriptura led to the separation of the immanent Trinity from the economic Trinity in that stream of theology and thus to the perception in English Protestant Christianity that the Trinity has little, if anything, to do with the Christian life. (p.xi)

In this length of review it is not possible to illustrate the detail of the discussion, so having indicated the flavour, I’ve outlined the argument:

1.       The Trinitarian rule of faith is broken up by the Reformation in which needed changes unleash primarily epistemological uncertainties about Christian faith.

2.       The Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura, feeds into this epistemic challenge and shifts the emphasis from participating in God’s Trinitarian life to proving that God is Trinitarian, as seen from a plain reading of the propositions found in Scripture.

3.       The proof that God is Trinitarian is not so easily established, and orthodox Protestants find themselves in a dilemma of having either to accept the limitations of their proof which may lead to Unitarianism, or accept that the Catholics are right.

4.       The major protagonist for the resulting minimalist approach to doctrine is Locke who, having accepted the Protestant rule of faith, of sola Scriptura, claims that very little of real importance is contained in or can be proved from Scripture. The personal knowledge of God is separated from intellectual assent and assent is required to very little. The scene is set for attempts to re-establish faith in the Trinity.

5.       However, in Charles Wesley, there is an example of English Christianity where worship (his hymns) and teaching (his sermons) reflect (ontological) participation in the divine: the Holy Spirit draws us into a personal knowledge of Trinitarian mission.

I found myself asking three questions as I read and reflected on the book:

1.       How would a Protestant emphasis on Scripture be integrated in a rule of faith today? Vickers is part of the Canonical Theism movement so one answer is found there. The placing of scripture within a broader canon might not be satisfactory.

2.       What would a contemporary Trinitarian rule of faith look like, eg is the Anglican Covenant best read as an attempt to provide a classic rule of faith for the Communion? The Covenant thereby helps establish a Canonical Catholicism.

3.       What are the implications for contemporary styles of mission and worship? Given Vickers’ conviction that ‘Personal knowledge of God was the only knowledge that finally mattered in early Christianity’ (p.193) who is the Charles Wesley of today?

Reading Vickers during Easter and leading up to Trinity Sunday has been most rewarding.

Tim Dakin

 

Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross (eds.), Mission in the 21st Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission, Darton, Longman and Todd, 2008, pp. 219, £14.95 (pb)

The editors are to be commended on putting together a rich anthology of voices on contemporary missiology. The emphasis on contributions from the ‘global South’ is particularly appropriate for this new century in which the majority of the world’s Christians live in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Professor Andrew F. Walls is well-known as the doyen of mission studies. His masterly summary of the changes in Christian mission over the last five centuries is a fitting conclusion to the book. Dr Cathy Ross, originally from New Zealand and now mission theologian at CMS and the University of Oxford, supplies the introduction and has facilitated the inclusion of voices of church and mission leaders otherwise unheard in the West.

             The volume does not set out to define mission but starts from ‘the five marks of mission’. Surprisingly for a book which takes such a contextual approach, the origins of the ‘five marks’ in the Anglican Communion are neither acknowledged nor explained. This seems to be due to the fact that the book was prepared to inform the 2008 Lambeth conference, with a particular slant toward CMS, which also explains the foreword from the Archbishop of Canterbury. But it may be confusing to readers outside that context. The article by CMS General Secretary Tim Dakin suggests the book also carries a certain agenda to give mission a more central place in the proposed Anglican Covenant.

             Short-comings of the ‘five marks’ formulation are recognised, but the intention is to show how the marks are applied and resonate in mission engagement globally. Having two commentators from different continents on each mark helps to highlight contrasting perspectives and concerns. Among these, Melba Maggay (Philippines) makes one of the most persuasive arguments I have read for ‘loving service’ as integral to Christian mission. It is a strength that the editors have elicited and included forthright opinions (for example from Emmanuel Egbunu, bishop in the – Anglican, we assume – Church of Nigeria) that taken in isolation will raise the hackles of many others but which are set here in the context of mission challenges. There are hints also of new theological perspectives on mission from the South, for example in the article by D. Zac Niringiye (Uganda), who emphasises the role of the Holy Spirit in mission in his exposition of ‘to proclaim the good news of the kingdom’.

             In the second half of the book, leading mission thinkers – again from a range of ethnic backgrounds – comment on contemporary mission issues with similarly thought-provoking results. For example, Kwame Bediako’s discussion ‘Whose religion is Christianity’, which must be one of the last articles this late pioneer African scholar wrote, is deeply insightful. And Korean mission theologian Moonjang Lee’s chapter sheds new light from an East Asian perspective on theology of religions.

             The quality of the articles is almost uniformly high and there is abundance of challenging resources here both for practitioners and academics. The book demonstrates how contemporary mission increasingly takes on local priorities and, as Cathy Ross puts it, is not ‘neat and tidy’. The implications of this for the future of the Anglican Communion, and any global organisation, are profound.

Kirsteen Kim

 

Donald Le Roy Stults,  Grasping Truth and Reality: Lesslie Newbigin's Theology of Mission to the Western World. James Clarke & Co, 2009, 295pp, £25.

Donald Le Roy Stults has provided a worthy addition to the growing literature on the work of Lesslie Newbigin, concentrating on Newbigin’s missionary engagement with Western culture. That this dimension of Newbigin’s ministry can provide more than enough for Stult’s substantial book is a measure of the substance of Newbigin’s output, particularly as most of the material under review was written after Newbigin’s retirement from active missionary service in India in the mid-seventies.

                    The book begins with a biographical sketch of Newbigin’s life, followed by an exploration of the background to his missionary engagement with the West. The substance of the book explores this engagement, helpfully expounding Newbigin’s critique of Western culture in the context of the intellectual streams that helped him to understand it. This approach is generally successful, particularly in the early chapters, where Stults draws out the significance of Charles Cochrane’s work on Augustine in drawing out those lines of thought which most influenced Newbigin, and also in mapping the historical crisis which Augustine faced which is in some ways similar to the cultural situation which Newbigin faced on his return from India. These central chapters form a valuable introduction to Newbigin’s engagement with the West, though the influence of Michael Polanyi could have been further explored to show how it helped to frame Newbigin’s cultural as well as epistemological insights. Partly for this reason, the conclusion to the book is less successful in its critique of Newbigin. Some of the ‘fault-lines’ are well-drawn, not least Newbigin’s emphasis upon epistemology to the exclusion of other possible cultural factors. But in setting these within a framework which hinges on Stults’s view that Newbigin was against the notion of ‘contextualisation’, his case is somewhat weakened. Greater attention to Newbigin’s own nuanced exposition of this theme in Open Secret (and elsewhere) would have helped to reframe Stults’ rather selective argument at this point, particularly at the level of what can and what cannot be contextualised. More generally, Stults tends to ‘flatten out’ Newbigin’s writings in a way that does not give significance to their historical development. Nonetheless, even at points where this reviewer tended to disagree, there is plenty to benefit from here.

Paul Weston

 

This issue's contributors

 

Tim Dakin is General Secretary of Church Mission Society

Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester

Ann Holt is Director of Programme in England and Wales, Bible Society

Kirsteen Kim is Associate Senior Lecturer in Theology Systematic and Social Theology at Leeds Trinity and All Saints

Stephen May is an author and Vicar of Norden in the Diocese of Manchester

Philip Sampson is an author and former psychotherapist and Social Science Research Fellow at the University of Southampton

Paul Weston is a Lecturer and Tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge

 

Newsletter 56 (autumn '09)

Lesslie Newbigin’s

Enduring Legacy

Paul Weston

By their very nature, centenary celebrations mark that which is past: an acknowledgement of someone's place in the annals of history.  However, the celebrations ahead also point us decisively forward.

            As we approach the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin’s birth (on December 8th), there are of course good reasons to recognise his achievements in a historical perspective. As the Times obituary put it  – he was to become ‘one of the foremost missionary statesmen of his generation’, and ‘one of the outstanding figures on the world Christian stage in the second half of the century.’ But in the view of some in the West, Newbigin’s achievements are best viewed in historical perspective – a thing of the past. After all, wasn’t his main focus on ‘modernity’ with its overcommitted faith in rationalism? Haven’t we ‘moved on’ in the focus of our missiological endeavours and attention? To postmodernity? To the rising tide of Islam? To the new world order of Christianity in which the global south must inevitably gain centre stage?

            It won’t surprise readers of this Newsletter to hear the proposition that such ‘historicism’ is seriously misplaced. I want to suggest three reasons why this particular centenary should be celebrated facing forward into the future in continuing conversation rather than simply back into the past with fond memory.

Christ the centre

A first reason is Newbigin’s theological ‘method’. Though trained in a protestant liberal approach to biblical hermeneutics during his time in Cambridge, he quickly found on his arrival in India in 1936 (and in particular during his weekly visits to the Ramakrishna Mission) that the essentially rationalist apologetic approaches to the bible did not engage those who had not been brought up in an enlightenment tradition. So in its place, Newbigin began to develop a theological method which saw the narrative of scripture in its witness to Jesus Christ as the irreplaceable locus of revelation, and therefore the source of every true form of missionary translation. Whilst some approaches to contemporary mission – particularly in the West – appear to flirt with various forms of cultural relativism, and therefore change with shifting cultural patterns, Newbigin’s commitment to the narrative of scripture as the a priori of knowing and the wellspring for mission gives his work a unique flavour and continuing relevance in our talk of ‘postmodern’ missionary engagement.

Contextual theology

A second reason is Newbigin’s committed contextual engagement. This is the creative counterpoint to method. Nearly all Newbigin’s work was conscientiously shaped by it, being attentive to the local context and engaging with it carefully. Those who are tempted to see him purely as a commentator and critic of modernity overlook his significant engagement with postmodernity in his latter years. The influence of Michael Polanyi’s epistemology is highly significant here, as it was in his discussions of modernity. But Polanyi helped Newbigin not only to sharpen his critique of Enlightenment assumptions, but also to develop creative missiological responses to the epistemological challenges posed by a post-Enlightenment West. In this sense Newbigin’s work (his ‘Unfinished Agenda’ as he put it in the title of his Autobiography) was always forward-pointing, was post-Enlightenment in its orientation, looking to new conversations and fresh points of engagement with the local context. This kind of dialogue will need to become more characteristic of the kind of theological enterprise needed – not least in the new global Christian context. This is not to dismiss Western theological paradigms, but to call them into creative partnership with other parts of the world church in order to produce those locally relevant forms of missionary church to which Newbigin was so committed. Whether one agrees with everything Newbigin said, he surely showed us a way of doing this that will profitably stimulate our missionary thinking for years to come.

Public witness

A third reason for Newbigin’s continuing relevance is his quest for a form of witness that could properly be called ‘public’. Again, it is not that he ‘cracked’ this, or gave the definitive answer to the question of what it means to say that the gospel is ‘public’ truth, but he was at least brave enough to set out the kinds of questions that need to be addressed. Steering a course between a disengaged ‘sectarianism’ on the one hand, and a return to a renewed form of Christendom on the other, his thinking was always characterised – particularly in his later years – by a recognition that alongside the retreat of the Western church into the private sphere, the more robust ‘public’ theology of Islam was and will continue to be a rising – not to say threatening – phenomenon.

Looking forward together

There is far more that could be said of course. But I hope that in these ways at least, the marking of the centenary of Newbigin’s birth will be as forward-looking as it is retrospective. Our conference in Birmingham in December is determined to be so, because there are many who find in Newbigin’s writings not just a mine of accumulated wisdom, but a prescient and cogent conversation-partner in the challenges that continue to face us.

 

 

Bearing the Open Secret:

The enduring legacy of Lesslie Newbigin

A Day Conference will be held to celebrate the centenary of Lesslie Newbigin's birth on Friday 11th December 2009 at The Queen's Foundation, Birmingham B15 2QH, England.

Registration fee £35 including lunch. For a booking form email Tessa.Stawski@ctbi.org.uk; (tel.02079014892)

A Day Conference will also be held in Edinburgh on Saturday 12th December at St John's Episcopal Church Hall, Princes Street. For further information and to register contact Rev'd Murdoch Mackenzie (email  mackenziema@ymail.com; tel. 01631 710 550) The main speaker at both conferences will be Professor Veli-Matti Karkkainen, who lectures on Lesslie Newbigin at Fuller Theological Seminary, California.

 

The Secret Strength of Lesslie Newbigin’s Theology of Missions

Eleanor Jackson

Lesslie Newbigin was a Northumbrian whose happiest holidays were spent walking the hills around the family home in Rothbury, and it is tempting to compare him with the Celtic missionaries who christianized the landscape. He too possessed a deep spirituality created through hours of prayer that sustained him in his ministry and he underwent considerable physical hardships and loneliness as he indefatigably preached the Gospel. However he himself only looked back at the history of missions in order to plot a more effective advance and he got very annoyed at suggestions after the publication of Foolishness to the Greeks, that his aim was to re-create mediaeval Christendom. His theology was always designed to have a practical effect: for example, to motivate Student Volunteers, to re-energize congregations, to justify the integration of church and missionary society structures and to launch an attack on secular humanism and post-modernity in any shape or form. He opposed the change of name for the International Review of Missions, a WCC publication he once edited, to International Review of Mission because he feared the loss of practical focus on missions. He abhorred the idea of ‘relevance’, whether in Christian apologetics or mission, but in fact his thought was always highly contextual, like liberation theology or feminist theology, something one might expect because of his acute sense of place and politics.  The challenge now is to discern the enduring strengths in his theology of missions which might make it possible to translate his insights into twenty first century programmes as with his The Gospel and Our Culture ere they pass into history.

The witness of the Spirit

‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you’ is a verse which has been used to sum up Newbigin’s missionary ecclesiology, but it actually influences his whole theology, given his emphasis on God’s continuing intervention in human history and given the Cross and resurrection of Christ as the turning point in that history.1 Like Stephen Neill and others he would argue that were this demonstrably not the case, his faith would be extinguished, and his life would have no meaning.2  However, the real linch-pin and what is original in his theology of missions is his understanding of the significance of work of the Holy Spirit both in theory and in his personal experience. The Holy Spirit is the down payment on the Kingdom of God, both the proof of God’s eschatological purpose in history and the means by which His Will is accomplished, particularly in mission and inter-faith dialogue. It seems that Newbigin was determined not to repeat Karl Barth’s self-confessed mistake of neglecting the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, first developing the concept of the mission of the Triune God c 1958-1962, and then refining his influential statements on the Holy Spirit in The Household of God (1953)3.

Cross-cultural experience

Newbigin could castigate western European post Enlightenment thought and capitalist society with the kind of vigour 19th century missionaries from Carey, Marshman and Ward onwards devoted to denouncing the evils of Hinduism. His first glimmerings of this critique began as a student under the influence of J.H. Oldham and Reinhold Niebuhr and perhaps as a reaction to the determinism he had imbibed from his geography teacher, Bill Brown, before his conversion. However it is as a striking example of his own understanding of ‘reverse evangelism’ or ‘the re-evangelization of the west’, ideas he popularized in the 1970s, that he launched his attack after his missionary service in India. He has been criticized for absorbing so little South Indian thought despite his profound knowledge of Tamil language and culture and the Sanskrit scriptures.  Yet his position would not be as radical if he had not immersed himself in a totally different culture, and he could not have translated his strictures on Vedantic monism to exposing the limitations of deism and atheism. He could utilize the same terms of reference for Vivekananda as for the sponsors of post modernism, and write with the same confidence and authority. What he did learn from India and re-inforce with his own bible study was the quality of Christian hope.  

 An holistic theology of mission

Much of what Newbigin wrote before his ‘retirement’ in 1979 has become normative. His goals of globalizing the debate and including Roman Catholics and Pentecostals are taken for granted. Yet to cast him as an ‘establishment’ figure is a mistake. His commitment to Roland Allen’s approach makes him profoundly subversive. The secret strength of Newbigin’s theology of missions derives from not just its roots in scripture and prayer and the way he tested and matured his ideas over decades, reflecting on his experiences and intellectual adventures, but also its holistic quality, undergirding all his theology and integrating  his life and thought.

 Notes

1.      Goheen, M (2000) ‘As the Father Has Sent Me, I am Sending You’: J.E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology Uitgeverij Boekencentrum, Zoetermeer

2.      Newbigin, J.E.L. (1993) The Open Secret  2nd ed.  Edinburgh. p106;  Jackson, E.M. (1991) God’s Apprentice. The Autobiography of Stephen Neill. London  p66

3.      Busch, E (1976) Karl Barth.  London p 494.

 

A message from Geoffrey Wainwright

This Fall semester, as Lesslie Newbigin’s centenary approaches, I am teaching an elective course at Duke Divinity School entitled “Readings in Newbigin’s Theology” that is attracting at least forty students.  The students are impressed by the consistencies maintained by Lesslie throughout his ministry and thought.  From the Bangalore lectures of 1941 on “The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress” to the missionary encounter with Western culture conducted by Newbigin in his later decades, the contrast remains firm between a world allegedly built on human discovery and achievement and a world whose cornerstone is God’s raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Not that Lesslie Newbigin was a quietist.  His evangelism was consistently governed by a phrase he repeated on a return visit to the CSI synod in 1986:  “Words without deeds are empty;  deeds without words are dumb.”  Thus Lesslie coincides with Pope Benedict’s third encyclical in viewing Christian faith and life as a fusion of truth and love.  Gestures of love are so many prayers for the coming of God’s final kingdom, and “God is able to preserve against that day all that has been committed to him” (2 Timothy 1:12).

            In his later years, as already in South India, Newbigin stressed the importance of the local church in Christian witness:  it is to be “the church for its place”.  Ecclesiologically, the question is freshly posed in ever changing circumstances as to how the unity of “all in each place” to which Lesslie was so committed throughout his ecumenical endeavours is to be attained and embodied in a single Christian community.

 

Comment

 HEADING INTO UNKNOWN TERRITORY

 We are now 25 years from The Other Side Of 1984. A quarter of a century has already passed since Lesslie Newbigin challenged the churches to ask radical questions about the future of western culture. We have also passed another significant milestone, in moving into a new millennium. Here we are now, well into the 21st century, in the world of global warming, the war on terror, and Generation Y. What does Lesslie’s analysis have to say to us now?

            Firstly, Lesslie’s comments about the disappearance of hope in western culture are as pertinent as ever. Barack Obama has emerged on the world scene as an astonishing, almost messianic figure, centered on the audacity of hope. We long for a new quality of leadership, built on faith, hope and integrity. But the problems are now so vast that we can scarcely believe that any leader could rise to this challenge and lead us out of the mess we have got ourselves into. Hope is in dreadfully short supply, and perhaps no-one feels this more acutely than the young, the generations X and Y of our broken culture, who cling to friends and drugs and the hope of a fleeting connection in a increasingly impersonal world.

            Secondly, the churches seem to me to be going through a long drawn out death and resurrection. Christendom is dead, but the nostalgia persists. We are now in the period of the mixed economy church, seeking to hold together models of inherited church and the new emerging church. The relationship is often uneasy. But surely the future for the church in western culture is going to be radically different from the traditional model which already has little meaning or resonance for those under the age of thirty, and many others as well.

            Finally, we are in the age of spirituality. Our culture no longer requires us to be in the least bit apologetic about speaking in public about spiritual things. However the church in the west has a long way to go in rediscovering our confidence in Christ. We are still deeply conditioned by the imperatives of liberal democracy.  Can we today in the words of Lesslie, offer to our dying culture “a new framework for understanding and coping with experience, based on the fact that God has become incarnate in the man Jesus?”

 Ian Cowley

 Emergent church, emergent unity?

 

'And when we see - as we do - a multiplicity of bodies, each claiming to be a fellowship based upon the common sharing the Holy Spirit, yet denying any binding obligations towards one another, and apparently without any sense of shame about such a situation, and sometimes even proud of it, must we not say bluntly: ‘Brethren, you deceive yourselves. This fissiparation, this proliferation of mutually irresponsible sects, is not a work of the Spirit but of flesh. In your emphasis upon the primacy of the Spirit, and upon the fact that the Church is intended to be a Spirit-filled fellowship in which the Spirit’s gifts are known and enjoyed and used for the edification of the Church and for witness to the world, you are right. But you are wrong in severing the Spirit from the body, in forgetting that as there is one Spirit so there is one body, and that the first and most excellent fruit of the Spirit is the charity which beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, and is glad to suffer for His body’s sake, which is the Church.'

Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God

 

Several decades ago a number of formal agreements and unions between churches were being pursued with vigour. A pioneering example was the formation of the Church of South India in which Lesslie Newbigin played such a vital part.

            Today such initiatives are not to the fore. However, some see encouraging signs of ecumenical renewal at a less formal level in the 'emerging' or 'emergent' church. Among them is Leander Harding, who recently quoted the above words of Lesslie Newbigin on his blog (internet web-log).1

            Back in June, he reflected on a conference on the relation between the emerging church and the Great Tradition.2 By way of introduction he wrote:

'The Emergent Church is a term that characterizes a wide spectrum of Christians and churches often composed of young adults that are seeking an “ancient-future” way of being the church. These young Christians often come out of Evangelical and Pentecostal circles, though there are refugees from the Mainline Churches as well, and they are looking for something more significant than the trendy consumerist relevance that has characterized many of the approaches to reaching a secularized society in the 20th century. It is a very disparate movement and includes examples that resonate deeply with the orthodoxy of the ages and other examples that seem, as one of the conference presenters George Sumner said, the latest instalment in the long book of Gnosticism...' 

            He then mused: 'As I listened to the themes that were attracting these young Christians: a more narrative understanding of the message of the Bible, an interest in ancient practices of prayer and spiritual discipline, a turn toward the writings of the earliest Christian centuries of the Patristic period, an interest by formerly free church types in sacramental theology and in the theology of the church, I was struck by the way in which this movement is revamping much of what was good about the story of the church and theology in the 20th century.'

Leander Harding believes we are in a moment when there is 'a fresh wind of the Holy Spirit moving to renew the ecumenical church'. He recalls movements of the Spirit in the course of the 20th century: the impetus of the Edinburgh 1910 World Mission Conference, the rise of Biblical Theology, the liturgical movement, the new embrace by churches of the poor and the marginalized, and the charismatic renewal. 'All of these movements', he writes, 'in some way brought with them a painful consciousness of the brokenness of the body of Christ as it faced the challenge of an increasingly hostile and secularized world. Out of the renewal in theology, liturgy and mission came a new desire for ecumenical healing and partnership...' 'It is striking', he notes, 'how the saints of the ecumenical convergence of the 20th century are the figures that interest the emergents of the Twenty-first the most. Karl Barth, Lesslie Newbigin, Michael Ramsey, Yves Congar, Alexander Schmemann were names that were invoked constantly during the course of this conference.'

            Meanwhile what has happened to this heritage in the churches? Leander Harding is critical: 'During the 20th century God gave to the broken and fractured global church a gift of the Holy Spirit, an ecumenical moment of mission and renewal. It was for the most part squandered and has been allowed to fall to the ground...' Against this background, today is 'a moment for repentance for those of us in the historic churches which have stewarded the Great Tradition but have lost touch with the life which generates the tradition and which carries it forward. It is also a moment of testing for that which is emerging. Will they marginalize doctrine and the labour of seeking a consensus in faith and order? Will they succumb to the motto that deeds unite and doctrine divides and then find themselves in the midst of church-dividing controversy with no deep doctrinal consensus to guide? Will they be lured into trivial and faddish relevancy and all too worldly politics at the expense of a more profound service of peace and justice? Will the established churches who are in a panic about their declining influence in the culture repent of quick fixes and pandering to culture and engage with a new generation in a deep renewal of the roots of Christian wisdom and practice? Will we all catch this new wind of the Spirit or let it pass us by? What an exciting time to be a Christian.'

            Do we see similar developments in Britain? Note that Mike Starkey, reviewing Apprentice: Walking the Way of Christ by Steve Chalke (with Joanna Wilde) finds 'a style more redolent of Roman Catholic of Orthodox mysticism than the author's own Baptist roots'3 Starkey comments 'this desire to rediscover older spiritual traditions and language has become particularly prevalent among today's Evangelical avant-garde (many of whom, including Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, offer cover endorsements). It signals a wider rethinking of old churchmanship boundaries.'

DK

Notes

1. http://www.leanderharding.com/blog, 14th September 2009.

2. http://www.leanderharding.com/blog, 7th June 2009.

3. Mike Starkey, Church Times, 28 August 2009.

 

Harry Blamires

Mark Hansard

Harry Blamires, well known as the author of The Christian Mind, was tutored by C.S. Lewis at University College, Oxford, and in many ways carried Lewis’ mantle admirably in his love for popular Christian defence and literature with Christian themes. Head of English and later Dean of Arts & Sciences at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, Blamires retired in the late 1970’s to devote his time to writing. For two decades he lectured widely across the U.S., and in 1987 he was a visiting professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. Today Blamires resides in Keswick.

            Author of over thirty works in English literature and theology, Blamires wrote popular books delineating traditional Christian thought and critiquing secular culture that are widely in use today. Much like Lewis, he simply and eloquently defended ‘Mere Christian’ doctrine, declaring from the rooftops that as far as secular Western society is concerned, the emperor surely has no clothes. Less well-known but quite as fascinating is Blamires’ allegorical fiction, such as New Town, and his discussion of Christian metaphor in works such as Words Made Flesh.

The Christian Mind

Of the numerous theological works from his pen, Blamires is justifiably most recognized for The Christian Mind, a tour-de force of prophetic musings on the lack of Christian thought and capitulation to secularism rampant in the modern Church in the West. Typical of his eloquently pronounced laments in this book are quotations such as the following, in which Blamires discusses the reaction of the thoughtful Christian to great secular literature of the 20th century:

“What then, is the position of the thinking Christian, face to face with the cultural situation I have described? As he reads the things worth reading, whether imaginative or polemical, he is continually meeting with accounts of the human condition…which make him sit up and say: This is profound and penetrating…It is so crucial that it cannot be overlooked. It touches me pre-eminently as a Christian. Yet this writer is not a Christian…the only way I can pursue this vital current of thought further is by more reading of non-Christian literature written by sceptics, and by discussion of it within the intellectual frame of reference which these sceptics have manufactured. In short, there is no current Christian dialogue on this topic.”1

Much has happened in Christian scholarship since he first penned these words in 1963, but they are as moving today as they were four decades ago. Here Blamires captures the stunning, sad, and quite often lonely realization that even today, the most original and stimulating intellectual writing to be found is often authored by secular thinkers standing on secular presuppositions.

            Blamires goes on in the book to detail a positive framework for Christian thought, which includes an acknowledgement and emphasis on the supernatural, a commitment to God’s authority as awe-inspiring presence, and a conception of truth which rejects modern relativistic frameworks. The insight and profundity of his thoughts in these chapters cause the reader to frequently pause and reflect on his own spiritual life—a disturbing, yet curiously purifying experience. Blamires ends his work on a discussion of the ‘sacramental cast,’ a very much Lewisian emphasis on how the passion of youth and the beauty of nature cause a longing for another world, which was of course wonderfully articulated in Lewis’ Weight of Glory.

            In the decades following The Christian Mind, Blamires wrote a number of sequels to the book of uneven quality. In the best of these, Where Do We Stand?, he asks the question of where secular culture resides fifteen years after the Christian Mind. One theme present in both books of interest to Blamires (as it was to Lewis) is the decay of reason in Western culture and its negative influence on the Church. There is, Blamires asserts, ‘a kind of pseudo-thinking which is imbued with subjectivism so capricious and relativism so fluid, as to defy analysis and render potential argument null.’ His example here is a radio interview with a fashion designer, who, in describing his past success in creating a new clothing line, declares, ‘It was alive… it anticipated a trend.’2 Blamires concludes that in Western society Christianity is no longer critiqued on a rational basis,3 a state which continues unabated today and has perhaps accelerated in recent years.

            Interestingly, Blamires also wrote a book summarizing basic Christian doctrine called On Christian Truth, in which he explicates the foundational doctrines of the faith, much as Lewis did in Mere Christianity. There is a charming simplicity to this work, a shepherd’s heart to articulate Christian thought in such a way as the genuine seeker can comprehend not only the ideas, but the liberating atmosphere of new life in Christ. For example: ‘It cannot be too strongly emphasized that to become a Christian is to accept an extra dimension to life. From the Christian’s point of view the most notable thing about the unbeliever’s world is that it is much smaller than his.’4 One can almost hear Lewis’ characters in The Last Battle calling: ‘Further up and higher in!’5

Literary Acumen and Christian Symbolism

Blamires’ academic background in English literature serves him well in writing popular Christian devotionals as well as symbolic Christian fiction. A little known work, his Words Made Flesh, stands as a rich, delightful example of the integration of academic expertise with faith, in which his knowledge of myth and literary symbolism brings a depth of worship and devotion to the Christian experience. Each chapter describes a physical symbol from Scripture such as fire, water, or wine, and then traces the literary development of such symbols in Western literature, often harkening back to ancient myth. In his discussion of fire, for example, Blamires notes that in English one can ‘burn’ with lust as well as with passion for God, and an ‘inextinguishable blaze’ is of course desired in some spiritual contexts. He then summarizes T.S. Elliot’s poem, Four Quartets, in which Elliot communicates that we can either sacrifice ourselves on the pyre of God’s fire, or continue to burn with unsatisfied longings.6 Blamires’ literary background here brings an artistic and devotional depth worth savouring.

            As well, Blamires wrote a number of fictitious works with Christian symbolism, including, early on in his career, a trilogy beginning with Devil’s Hunting Ground, and most recently, the allegorical New Town: A Fable Unless You Believe. In New Town, the main character has a dream in which he is transported to ‘Old Town,’ which is rapidly decaying and filled with residents trying desperately to get on a waiting list for ‘New Town.’ As the acronyms no doubt make obvious, Old Town is symbolic of this world and New Town symbolic of the next, as well as Old Testament and New Testament living, respectively.7 One is immediately reminded of Lewis’ allegorical tomes such as The Great Divorce and The Pilgrim’s Regress. Although the simple prose makes Blamire’s New Town a quick read, its narrative emphasis on the next world is a poignant reminder that too often we are satisfied to firmly settle in this world rather than eagerly anticipate the next.

            In all, Blamires is a worthy, if not quite as formidable, successor to C.S. Lewis in both his Christian fiction and his popular theological and apologetic works. His heart to make Christianity both rationally defensible and readily accessible makes him a Christian thinker to both ponder and enjoy.

Notes

1.      The Christian Mind. New York: Seabury Press edition, 1963, 10-11. Emphasis his.

2.      Where Do We Stand?, Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1980, 142.

3.      Ibid, 142-144.

4.      On Christian Truth. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1983, 12. Emphasis his.

5.      The Last Battle, Collector’s Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2000, 176.

6.      Words Made Flesh. Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Publications, 1985, 8-10.

7.      Blamires reveals this as well as other obvious symbolic keys to the book in a web interview on ReadingGroupGuides.com: http://www.readinggroupguides.com/guides3/new_town2.asp. Accessed August 24, 2009.

ACCESS highlights

By all counts Charles Taylor's A Secular Age is set to become a landmark study to which scholars of religion and secular society will make reference for many years to come. At   pages, however, many thoughtful Christians will not read it from cover to cover. The current issue of ACCESS offers three review articles on this book, by Michael Paul Gallagher S.J., Andrew Kirk and Wilfred McClay. Together, like multiple perspectives upon a large building, these articles help us grasp it 'in the round'.

            Eastern Orthodox Christianity, meanwhile, appears in two lights in ACCESS items. Sergey Filatov (690) finds the Orthodox Church in Russia today spiritually depleted by decades of atheism and slipping into the role merely of cultural patron in antagonism to the West. Bradley Nassif (696), by contrast, writes enthusiastically as a Lebanese American from Antioch in the U. S. Evangelical magazine Christianity Today of signs that 'these two great expressions of the Christian faith, the evangelical and the Orthodox, are gradually coming together in vision' - a claim which resonates with some of Leander Harding's comments on emerging church in this newsletter.

 

Book reviews

Geoffrey Wainwright, Embracing Purpose : Essays on God, the World and the Church, Epworth, 2007, pp xi + 370,  £19.99

This is a magnificent collection of recent essays by one of the leading Methodist theologians of the past half century.  Yet the description is not quite right; although, as befits a Yorkshireman, Wainwright is acutely conscious of his theological roots, his theology is deeply ecumenical.  He has represented the Methodist Church at many ecumenical gatherings, including the meeting which led to the seminal Lima report on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.

                    In several of the essays Wainwright quotes from John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint the striking passage where the Pope called for an ecumenical dialogue which would discover ‘a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nevertheless open to a new situation’.   He sees hope in the way that Roman Catholics made a promising start in the incorporation of Wesley’s hymns into their hymnody ‘before we all began succumbing to mindless modern mantras’.  The essays here show a growing appreciation for contemporary Roman Catholicism, partly because it has not wavered in its commitment to full, visible unity as the goal of ecumenism, even if there is still an element of ‘unity on our terms’.  By contrast, Wainwright regrets the tendency in modern Protestantism to remain content with the reconciled diversity, a mere ‘inter-denominational readjustment’ – which he regards as more akin to unreconciled diversity, or even ‘peaceful co-existence in conditions of Cold War’.

                    But how does he propose to square the circle of Catholic claims and the Protestant traditions, if the latter are not merely to capitulate to the former?  His answer recalls emphases from his earlier work on eschatology: unity, like holiness, is best viewed as a vocation, a pilgrimage.  Might the Roman Catholic Church be open to regard its own present reality more eschatologically, and therefore incomplete without the Eucharistic inclusion of fellow travellers who are clearly on the same journey?  This does not answer all the practical questions which would arise, but it represents a stimulating response to Ut Unum Sint’s invitation to a patient and fraternal dialogue upon these intransigent aspects of ecumenism.

                    For this reviewer, the most striking essays are the two with which the book concludes.  The first, Heresy Then and Now, takes its course from Tertullian’s compendium of heresies, and sets out their modern equivalents.  A final (at first) surprising, but moving essay A Remedy for Relativism is an appreciative exposition of Benedict XVI’s theology, and in particular his attack on relativism, which he suggests has been conducted with ‘intelligence, learning and art’.

                    Lesslie Newbigin is quoted at various points throughout the collection, but especially in those concluding chapters.  Newbigin’s claim that freedom of choice is the central idol of our culture requires a recognition in response that there is a universal truth under which we stand, and which judges all our thoughts and choices.  An excessive emphasis upon individual freedom will dissolve truth itself, and Wainwright endorses Newbigin’s suggestion that perhaps the greatest task of the Church in the twenty-first century is to be the bastion of rationality in a world of unreason, defending rationality against the hydra-headed spirit of the age.  This will only be achieved by a renewal of Christian orthodoxy, and hence the appreciation of Tertullian and Ratzinger.

Peter Forster

 

Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew, Living at the Crossroads: An introduction to Christian worldview, SPCK, 2008, xvi+205pp., £10.99 (pb)

Goheen is Professor of Worldview and Religious Studies at Trinity Western University, British Columbia and Bartholomew Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College, Ontario.  This book is the second of a projected series of three.  The first was The Drama of Scripture: finding our place in the Biblical story (SPCK, 2006).  The final book will be an introduction to Christian philosophy.  They have set up a series website with some very useful resources at www.biblicaltheology.ca.

                    Worldview analysis has become a widely used tool in the Christian world and the literature is expanding rapidly (cf. Worldview in Review, Network newsletter 46, 2006).  Can there be room for yet another book?  On its own perhaps not, but for the whole triad I anticipate a definite ‘yes’.  The strengths of the book are its rich historical perspective, its Biblical depth and its social conscience.  It throbs with pastoral and missional passion as it calls us to live in the whole of daily life by the Biblical story we profess.  It is more comprehensive than many other books, addressing both postmodernity and resurgent Islam (ch 7).  It is also more practical – with sections on business, politics, sports, arts, scholarship and education (ch 8).  At every point the authors explore strengths and weaknesses and are well aware of the dangers that can attend worldview thinking.

                    This series will be an excellent preparation for Christian students going to college or university, but for others there is still a huge unfulfilled need.  The book is text-heavy, with just one page of pictures and a few small diagrams – all in black and white.  There is no humour.  It will doubtless be read to advantage by the (relatively) few who have devoured previous worldview books, but it is unlikely to touch the great Christian public who could benefit enormously from its insights and tools.  WYSOCS’ Reality Bites programme (www.wysocs.org.uk/realitybites.org.uk) uses challenging stories and questions to bridge that gap.  Those reading this review who have a gifting to reach that wider Christian audience should not hesitate to play their part.

Arthur Jones

 

Ian Cowley is Vocations and Spirituality Co-ordinator in the Diocese of Salisbury

Peter Forster is Bishop of Chester

Mark Hansard works with the Faculty Ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ International (www.clm.org)

Eleanor Jackson is a County Councillor, and has been a missionary in India and a University lecturer. She is writing a major biography of Lesslie Newbigin

Arthur Jones is a Tutor with Responsibility for Co-ordinating Training, Church Army

Geoffrey Wainwright is Cushman Professor of Christian Theology, Duke University

Paul Weston is a Lecturer and Tutor at Ridley Hall, Cambridge and Chair of the Network Management Council